Oakland School of Language

This past week 7th-grade students from the Oakland School of Language, a dual language Spanish English public middle school in Oakland, California, came to the Clair Tappaan Lodge on Donner Summit for a snow science program with Headwaters. This was the first time many of the students had seen snow before and presented a very special opportunity for them to study the source of much of California’s water. One of the unique aspects of this program for Headwaters was that many of the students did not speak English. While some of our instructors could teach in both Spanish and English other instructors communicated to students using teachers as translators. 

Students investigate Donner Summit

One of the most powerful moments of this 3-day overnight program came out of students and Headwaters instructors dealing with this language barrier. This was centered around two students, who were creating a project around density and snow water equivalent in the snowpack. While waiting for their teacher to translate between them and their Headwaters instructor they started using Google translate on their computer. The group was then able to communicate directly with their Headwaters instructor and continue analyzing their data and creating their research presentation.

This system of text-based google translation worked quite well allowing their teacher to step back and spend more time with other groups. At the end of the program, these students walked up to their teacher and told him “See look what we did [refering to their presentation] and we did it all without you with an instructor didn’t even speak Spanish.” The teacher later described this event to Headwaters staff as “the best snubbing he has ever received.”

A group of three students conducting research on snow

Through their Headwaters program, these students not only completed a rigorous independent research project, but they also proved to their teacher and themselves that they could successfully complete complex tasks with someone who can only speak English. The pride they took in this accomplishment shows in their declaration of independence from their translator. Language barriers are massive and daunting hurdles, but these students were engaged in their research projects and met to this challenge with determination and a problem-solving mindset. While Headwaters programs typically don’t set out to help students break down language barriers, the critical thinking and self-motivation demonstrated here are exactly what we aim to pass on to every student we work with. 

One student is buried waist deep in snow as part of his snow temperature research

This program would not have been made possible without support from many members of the Oakland community, the Sierra Club, and Tahoe Donner XC. Thank you all for making this great educational experience possible.

Coronavirus Update March 15, 2020

March 15, 2020

To our valued supporters, students, families, and teachers:

Here is a policy update regarding this critical time in science and medicine history. We continue to evaluate the changing situation regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, and are following closely to guidelines set by the World Health Organization and Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. The health and safety of our participants, teachers, and staff is at the forefront of our decision-making process.

Effective March 14, 2020, we will postpone our overnight program operations and all in-person activities scheduled for the remainder of March. We will continue to evaluate the progression of this public health situation and make a decision on when to begin in-person programs again. There have been no confirmed cases among Headwaters staff members or participants; we are making this decision to support public health and safety. 

We are committed to our mission to educate youth and will be providing online educational resources for students to complete parts of our programs digitally while they are at home. This also allows us to keep our administrative staff and teachers employed during an uncertain time. In order to support the many students whose schools have closed and are learning digitally, we are sharing science lessons that students, parents, and teachers can implement from home. More information on accessing these lessons can be found on our social media channels. Two available lessons are listed below this message as well.

We wish you health and peace. 

Megan Seifert, PhD
Executive Director of Headwaters Science Institute

Our first two lessons are online here:

Make your own bird feeders

Entomology digital toolkit

Park Day School Investigates Snow Pollution

This past week students from the Park Day School’s 7th grade joined Headwaters on Donner Summit for a snow science program themed around snow as a source of water. A majority of California’s drinking water comes from melted snow which also serves as a ecosystem sustaining water source during the hot and dry summer months.

Students collect samples in the field site on Donner Summit.

Headwaters staff challenged students to create their own original research projects around something that would affect the water they consume in Oakland. The students worked together in teams to create a creative array of different projects around this theme. Below are some highlights from the group work. 

A few groups of students noticed on arrival that the snow near the road was noticeably dirtier than the snow elsewhere around the field site and chose to investigate this further. They collected dozens of snow samples from near the road, in clean snow, and many areas in between. Students melted their snow samples and tested them for total dissolved solids (TDS), the concentration of ions like salts in water, as well as the clarity of the snow melt water to quantify how much dirt and organic matter was in the snow.

Students test their findings in their “laboratory” at Clair Tappaan Lodge.

This group hypothesized that they would find a linear decrease in TDS and increase in clarity as they moved away from the road. They found that areas within 8 feet of the road were significantly impacted with much higher TDS and much less clear meltwater while areas further than 8 feet showed very little effect from this human disturbance.  The group also found evidence that particulates from the road not only affected snowmelt water quality but also made the snow near the road darker and warmer causing it to melt faster. While the roads studied did not have salts applied to them, these students hypothesized that the increase in TDS came from the mechanical breakdown of asphalt and sand by car tires. However, they also found an unexpected result of this increase. In their sample sites downhill of the road, this team found evidence that pollutants from the road were entering nearby waterways. 

In their research presentation, these students discussed how the moderate decreases in water quality they observed on Donner Summit could be magnified further downstream in the reservoirs that hold much of the Bay Areas drinking water.  Their project also highlights the importance of wetlands, swales, and catchment ponds which filter sediment and clean water. 

Students share their findings through data analysis presented in this graph during their final research presentation.

This project is a great example of what makes Headwaters student programs so special. They start with students’ own observations and challenge them to explore their curiosity more deeply. Lead by their own investigations, students learn about the ecosystems they live in, how they work, and how to protect these important natural resources.

Overcoming a fear of snow through science!

This past week students from Latitude 37.8 High School in Oakland joined Headwaters on Donner Summit to investigate the Sierra snowpack. This was several students’ first time seeing snow and we were excited to give them the opportunity to learn about the source of over half the state’s drinking water. Several of these students were understandably nervous about walking around on so much snow during their 3-day trip to the snowbound Clair Tappaan Lodge. A fear of falling and getting stuck in the snow was at the forefront of some of their minds so much so that a group of students decided to make that the focus of their scientific research project with Headwaters. 

This group of students used many of the same techniques that scientists across the Sierra use to monitor the snowpack to investigate properties of snow. Through measuring density these students quantified not only how soft or firm the snow was but also the amount of water in different parts of the snowpack. The group also measured the temperature, depth, and how far their feet sunk below the snow surface. 

Through their quest to collect data for their project, the group traveled over snow further and further from the lodge, up hills, and across areas they had previously been afraid of walking on. This group found that they sunk into the snow more in areas that had softer, less dense snow that also tended to be warmer. They also found that most of the snow in the area was on average 30% water. This means that the 1 meter of snow in the group’s study area will melt down to 30cm of water, or on a larger scale, an astounding three hundred twenty-five thousand gallons of water per acre!

After their research presentation, we asked one of the students who had previously shared she was afraid of snow at the beginning of the trip how she felt about snow now. She shared that “I don’t think snow is my favorite thing in the world, but I’m not afraid of it anymore.” We are thrilled to have conquered a fear of snow through science learning!

Call for donations: winter items needed!

We always stock extra warm winter items for the students that don’t have them, and are looking for donations of jackets and gloves. Can you help us? We also need a few supplies for our winter programs. We’re looking for the following:

-snow jackets
-avalanche shovels
-snow probes

To arrange a donation, please contact Anne@headwatersscienceinstitute.org.

Snow science in our Winter Programs

We spend most of the winter in snow science programs, stoking student curiosity about snowmelt, snowpack, the temperature of snow, and more. There is so much to be studied when it comes to snow. One of the first questions we address with our students is: what is snow? Here’s a short and easy to understand informational video we use in our lessons:

Once our students understand what snow is, they can then begin to delve into the complexities of snow science. For one thing, understanding snow is critical to understanding our climate. The National Snow & Ice Data Center writes that “Although scientists have already learned much about snow properties, they continue to study snow. For instance, the layers of very old snow in places like Greenland and Antarctica can reveal valuable information about past climate conditions.”

Many of our students become curious about temperature change in snow over time. Avalanche.org is run by the American Avalanche Association, who are dedicated to studying this natural phenomenon and exploring why it occurs. They report that, “large temperature gradients usually occur when cold, clear weather causes the snow surface to become very cold, or if the snow is especially shallow—or both.” A great graphic describing temperature change and explaining its significance can be found here.

Here are some more resources we really like for our snow science programs:

-UC Berkeley Research Center’s Central Sierra Snow Lab website
A detailed article from Worldatlas explaining what causes an avalanche
-A video from UCLA investigating how snow shapes warming in the Sierra Nevada